In a summer filled with superheroes in spandex, dinosaurs romping across the globe, and Tom Cruise once again risking his life for an impossible-to-pull-off stunt, you can forgive this moviegoer for looking for something a little bit quieter and somewhat more gentle, a film which has a modest goal of entertaining without the need of elaborate special effects.
Director Anthony Fabian’s Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is the cinematic equivalent of counter-programming comfort food: almost always pleasing, not too offensive, and easily digestible. A fantasy that combines post-war trauma, Parisian garbage strikes, and Carrie Bradshaw-levels of fetishization over fashion, the film is sweet, lovable … and just a little bit nauseating.
The film stars Leslie Manville, a veteran of Mike Leigh’s working-class dramas who gave a pitch-perfect performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, as the title character, an English widow working as a maid in 1950s London. Her life is lonely but happy, her sadness over her husband’s disappearance in World War II punctuated by boisterous nights out with her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas, all warmth and good cheer) and womanizer Archie (Jason Isaacs, taking a break from Harry Potter and stock villain roles).
Mrs. Harris becomes enamored with one of her client’s Christian Dior dresses and soon makes it her goal to go to Paris to get a custom-fit dress tailored just for her. Through a series of fortunate (and increasingly far-fetched) events, she raises enough money to do so, and soon she’s on her way to the City of Lights to fulfill her sartorial dreams.
In Paris, Mrs. Harris finds her way past the guarded gates of Dior’s luxury couture headquarters, where she befriends the handsome accountant Andre (Emily in Paris‘ Lucas Bravo), the beautiful model Natasha (Alba Baptista, putting away her habit from Warrior Nun), and a kind widower, the Marquis de Chassagne (The Matrix Resurrections‘ Lambert Wilson). Of course, there has to be a villain in something like this, and Isabelle Huppert cashes her paycheck as Dior’s snobby manager that, even after a climactic reveal, still makes you wonder why one of France’s best living actresses would slum it in such a thankless role.
There’s a tedious romance that plays out just like how you’d normally expect it to, homeless bums that act as a Greek chorus, a mad dash to save a departing loved one, and a “You go, girl!” moment so anachronistic and absurd you can’t help but wince. And yes, Mrs. Harris literally says those words in the film.
The first half of the movie is the best as it goes out of its way to convincingly evoke the grimy bustle of working-class London at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. It’s here that the film finds the right balance of realism and fantasy, juggling Mrs. Harris’ loneliness with her vivid social life filled with dancing and betting on horses.
The problem arises when the film overplays its hand in the second half of the movie, making Mrs. Harris into a lovable scamp who has the solution to everyone’s problems. It betrays the working class charm that the movie and Manville effectively established earlier and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Must Mrs. Harris solve everyone’s problem, including the fashion industry itself, with such sugary sweetness? Isn’t it enough that the film focus on her own inner life, and what it means for her to move on from being a widow and opening herself up to a new romance?
I guess not. The movie is based on a dusty 1958 novel, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, which was the first in a series of adventures for the old widow: she goes to New York City, visits Parliament, and ventures behind the Iron Curtain to charm those humorless Russians. The first novel was the most successful and was adapted into a one-hour TV episode in 1958 and a made-for-TV movie in 1992 with Angela Lansbury as the title character.
Maybe that’s why the film seems so bizarrely out of time. It’s not material that’s timeless, and this adaptation doesn’t make a solid case as to why it needed to be adapted again. What once worked in the past doesn’t mean it can work again, and this iteration of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris doesn’t offer anything new to warrant another go-around.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is currently playing in theaters nationwide.
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